Washington — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s pitch to anti-peace process Evangelicals and conservative Republicans eager to pound President Bill Clinton produced rumbles of discontent among Jewish leaders during this week’s high-stakes visit here by the beleaguered Israeli leader.
Netanyahu’s strongest reception came not at events sponsored by a Jewish group and his own embassy but at a rally staged by the National Unity Coalition for Israel, a group comprised mostly of Evangelical Christians with some politically conservative Jews. They thundered “not one inch” after the hoarse prime minister gave a blistering assessment of Palestinian noncompliance and assured listeners that Israel had lived up to all of its obligations.
“It was curious that he began with outreach to a coalition of people who are not only antagonistic to
his host, the president, but also to a majority of the Jewish community,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.
“Reaching out to these people is nothing new for Likud prime ministers,” he said. “But it’s curious that he would do it at this time, especially since relations between the two governments are so sensitive. It’s like poking a finger in the administration’s eye.”
Other Jewish leaders were less charitable.
“He was blatant about the fact that this trip had less to do with diplomacy than public relations,” said a 20-year veteran of the pro-Israel wars.
“For him to meet with [House Speaker Newt] Gingrich and [evangelist Jerry] Falwell before he met with the president — and for him to choose to make his initial speech to a group that continues to bitterly attack Clinton — was a virtual declaration of war.”
A pro-Israel lobbyist called Netanyahu’s twin focus on Evangelical and GOP critics of the administration “the result of some very bad advice that he no longer needs mainstream American Jews.”
Ironically, the political right continued blasting the administration’s alleged pressure on Israel, even as Netanyahu was telling reporters there was no pressure, and his aides were saying that the meetings went better than expected, although there were no breakthroughs.
On Tuesday, Gingrich (R-Ga.) sent Clinton a letter charging that “your administration has consciously chosen to insult and undermine one of our strongest allies.”
On Wednesday there were rumblings of a possible meeting in Washington between Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, although administration officials said the likelihood was not high.
Netanyahu came to town Monday with a long list of alleged Palestinian violations of the Oslo and Hebron accords and a general proposal for West Bank redeployment that would return less land to Palestinian hands than the administration believes would be accepted by Arafat.
At Tuesday’s White House meeting, Netanyahu reportedly offered a redeployment plan of less than 10 percent. While the administration continues to insist that it has not set a numerical threshold for what constitutes the “significant and credible” withdrawal it has demanded, Netanyahu’s reported offer appears to be less than it considers acceptable.
The president did not challenge that plan but offered a number of ideas for implementing the next Israeli withdrawal, including an incremental approach to further pullbacks coupled with specific changes in Palestinian security compliance.
Administration and Israeli sources agreed on Tuesday that there were few signs of administration strong-arming during the initial 90-minute session between the two chiefs of state, and that the scheduling of a second meeting late Tuesday night signaled that the summit was going better than expected.
“Those who expected that the sky would fall this morning were wrong; it didn’t fall,” said one Israeli official. “All who anticipated pressure on Israel will know now that the president is not putting pressure.”
The two leaders “talked about details, about substance,” said another source. “The tone was cool but businesslike.”
In a brief question-and-answer session just before their morning session, Clinton offered a mild rebuke to Arafat, who threatened over the weekend to resume the intifada if the negotiations with Israel fail.
“I think if he makes an observation that if this whole things fails, then maybe it won’t be good, that’s understandable,” he said.
“But I don’t think it should be encouraged.”
In response to a question, Netanyahu said that his ruling coalition, weakened by the recent resignation of Foreign Minister David Levy, would stand behind any decision to move forward in the negotiations with the Palestinians.
“This is what this government is about — peace with security,” he said. “And I am sure that I can muster the necessary support across the government and across the coalition for something that will move the peace process forward and maintain secure and defensible boundaries for Israel.”
Clinton, according to Israeli media reports, chided Netanyahu for meeting with Rev. Falwell on Monday. Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority, is among the president’s most bitter critics and has been selling video “documentaries” linking Clinton to a variety of crimes.
Clinton refused to be drawn into a debate over which party in the negotiations was responsible for the current Israel-Palestinian standoff.
“I don’t think it’s fruitful to discuss that,” he said. “I think what we ought to talk about is what both sides can do now to get the peace process moving again.”
“The meetings have gone extremely well,” State Department spokesman James Rubin said after the first round of meetings on Tuesday, adding that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright “felt the meetings were businesslike and that substantive issues were fully explored and fully addressed.”
On Tuesday, administration officials seemed to downplay earlier signs that they had cut the diplomatic trimmings of the visit down to the bare essentials. Netanyahu was originally scheduled for a single one-hour session with Clinton and no meals with the president or public events.
After meeting with Clinton on Monday, Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said that “reports about an administration cold shoulder during this trip aren’t true.”
Still, diplomatic observers said that Netanyahu’s reception, while not frigid, lacked the warmth surrounding visits of his immediate predecessors.
In his letter to Clinton, Gingrich said that officials responsible for leaks about the alleged snub “should be reprimanded immediately.”
But there was no chill when Netanyahu arrived at the National Unity Coalition for Israel rally on Monday, interrupting an unscheduled speech by Falwell. An overflow crowd of 500 surprised the event’s planners.
“It’s a tremendous outpouring,” said the NUC president, Esther Levens, a longtime Jewish activist from Kansas. “These are people who find it very hard to understand why America is pressuring Israel, when Yasir Arafat hasn’t lived up to any of his commitments.”
Netanyahu in his speech to the group attacked the Palestinians for not revising portions of their charter calling for Israel’s destruction and repeated charges that Arafat has yet to crack down on terrorists.
“They don’t conduct that systematic war against terrorism, and do you know why? Because it’s tough; it’s tough to confront Hamas,” he said. “Let me tell you, it was tough doing some of the things I did [in fulfilling terms of the Hebron agreement], but I did them because I kept the agreement.”
The prime minister insisted that the new demands for Palestinian compliance he brought to Washington were not a stalling tactic.
“I believe that if we insist on compliance, if the United States insists … this can pave the way to move the quest for genuine peace.”
The combative tone of the meeting was set by Zionist Organization of America president Morton Klein, who pilloried the administration for one-sided criticism of Israel.
“It is the government of Israel that is supporting Oslo,” he said. “It is Bill Clinton who is refusing to support Oslo by demanding a unilateral Israeli withdrawal and not demanding that Arafat live up to his promises.”
Several leading Christian members of the group agreed that their support for Netanyahu is grounded in Christian “end-time” prophecy — which includes predictions about perpetual war in the Middle East until the return of Jesus Christ and the eventual conversion of the Jews to Christianity.
“We believe that Jews will take their rightful place in the nation of Israel, that the whole land will be given back to them — and that’s where Christ will set up his eternal kingdom, in the city of Jerusalem,” said Dwight Parrish, director of the Ralph Sexton Ministries in North Carolina and a member of the event’s host committee.
Jews, he said, will remain Jews, adding that “I look at myself as an adopted Jew or a righteous gentile.”
Will these Jews who “remain Jews” become believers in Christ?
“I believe so,” he said, “once they realize that Christ was the redeemer.”
Outside the Mayflower Hotel, the sidewalk was cluttered with pro-peace process demonstrators and marchers demanding that Israel return no more territory to the Palestinians. As a visual aid, anti-Oslo demonstrators brought a live sheep, arguing that territorial concessions would prepare Israel for the slaughter.
Members of the Jewish Peace Lobby passed out fliers calling for tough new steps by the administration to push for compliance by both the Israelis and Palestinians — including a cutoff of aid if they don’t live up to their obligations.
The visit resulted in a sudden increase in ad revenue for major newspapers as groups — including the Presidents Conference and the Israel Policy Forum — bought ads greeting the prime minister and expressing the views of their members. The Presidents Conference ad focused on Israel’s 50th anniversary — the only Mideast issue groups ranging from Americans for Peace Now to the Zionist Organization of America could agree on.
The Washington Times also ran an ad by the Coalition for True Peace in the Middle East — a previously unknown group with no mailing address — with a crude, derogatory caricature of Arafat and Clinton, unshaven and wearing a duplicate of Arafat’s headdress.
“Two of a kind: Yasser and Bill,” the caption read.
Jewish leaders were quick to label the ad blatant racism.
“It’s hard to find the adjectives to comment on something this ugly and unfair,” said Jess Hordes, Washington director of the ADL.